Three-year-old Liv wanted cookies, and when her mother, Chris, explained they were for after dinner, she exploded. Chris patiently explained to Liv that she would enjoy the treat soon, but needed to wait a little longer. She promised to hurry dinner along. Liv calmed down and skipped off to play, willing to practice a little self-control on the cookie front.
A few minutes later, Liv's older sister, Sam (age 5), began wailing after an argument over toys. Chris immediately frowned and looked frustrated. Rather than comfort her daughter or use the moment to teach her about sharing or negotiating, she turned her back and let Sam stomp away screaming. "She’s really difficult," said Chris, with exasperation. When asked why Sam gets under her skin more than her sister does, Chris shrugged and said, “She's just hard to deal with. She’s stubborn.”
I’m a family counsellor, and I offer in-home emotional support, assessment and coaching for families facing significant struggles. After watching this scenario play out in Chris’s kitchen, I passed on my observations. “Liv just acted out in the same way, and you were so supportive,” I said. “The same was not true for Sam. I think you see yourself in her.”
This observation shocked Chris. “I was nothing like Sam; as a kid! I was always worried about making everyone happy, and I never lost my temper.” With a little more probing, we figured out that the discrepancy in her reactions to these two kids came down to their birth order in the family.
When Chris was a small child, she had felt that her mom often ignored her and her sister's needs. As the elder sibling, Chris would step up and mother her baby sister. Chris had also been harshly criticized and felt shamed if she ever acted out in front of her mother. Her belief system became that younger siblings were entitled to act like kids, but elder siblings ought to be mature and in full control of their emotions at all times.
To help Chris show more empathy towards Sam when her elder daughter was struggling with her feelings, I told Chris that any time Sam began to push her buttons, she should pause and disconnect emotionally long enough to ask herself: "How is Sam like me as a kid in this moment?" and "What did I need from my parents as a kid of her age?" Over time it became easier for her to feel more compassion when her daughter was losing control and was able both to reassure her and gently help her to self-regulate, as she did for the baby of the family, Liv.
Parents can be triggered by all of their children in different ways. We are taught young to have certain judgements about ourselves, and when a kid mirrors these aspects of our selves that we judge or deny, it can become a trigger. If we grew up in a family obsessed with cleanliness and germs, we may respond over-harshly to a child who gets a little muddy playing outside. If we experienced neglect or abandonment as a kid, we may react very strongly to a teen who yells “I hate you,” while they’re in a mood. If we grew up in a home where shouting was a prelude to physical punishments, we may feel overwhelmed when a kid raises their voice. The good thing about being triggered by one of your kids: It’s an opportunity for us to identify and heal our childhood wounds.
Siblings are unique individuals and may well require different parenting strategies to thrive—that’s OK. But if you find that you’re much harder on or less responsive to one of your kids, it’s time to take steps to redress inequities. The best parents are still human, so it’s not unusual to struggle with this, but by learning to identify and understand our pain points, we can better guide all our children as they learn to express themselves and to self-regulate.
Here are some steps I recommend to help you identify and manage your own triggers, so the button-pushing stops.
1. Notice physical reactions Pay attention to when you feel like you’re boiling over or ready to explode. Maybe you feel like you were punched in the gut. Your heart may be racing or your breathing has changed. Acknowledging your physiological reactions when a kid is starting to wind you up is a first step to doing something to diffuse the situation.
2. Give yourself some space to reflect and feel your own emotions after being triggered
Step back from the situation so you don’t react to your child in a heavy-handed (or under-responsive) way. Sometimes it’s not realistic to physically step away, particularly if a child is very young or has special needs. Taking a few deep breaths is another way of creating a little emotional distance, calming yourself down and allowing yourself to feel whatever is rising up inside you. Notice the emotional response that follows the physical response. Is it the feeling of rejection, danger, anger, sadness or fear?
3. Identify your trigger Ask yourself “what about the behaviour of this child in particular is pushing my buttons?” Ask someone you are comfortable with for feedback. Are they doing something you do yourself but are uncomfortable about? Or is it the opposite: are they exhibiting traits that are the opposite to your own?
4. Take ownership Remember that when we are triggered it is always about us, not about the other person. That’s not to say that undesirable behaviours like yelling or insulting don’t need to be addressed, it’s just that you can’t do much as a parent if you’ve lost your cool or if you’re shutting your kid out: You need to find a way to regroup and to parent rationally from a place of relative calm.
5. Don’t judge yourself Give yourself the compassion you deserve—and perhaps never received as a child—so you can then show compassion to your child when their behaviour is triggering. When you can identify your trigger and working on being less reactive, talk to your child about this to model what it means to be working on ourselves.
6. Move on Don’t get bogged down in regret that you didn't notice the trigger sooner and have not always been fair with the child who pushes your button. The important thing is to take steps to change your reactive patterns.
7. See the gift Triggers are an uncomfortable thing that can help us to heal aspects of our wounded selves. Addressing them means we can grow. Dealing with your issues may well mean you’re breaking entrenched familial cycles, and that’s something you should feel proud about.
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